SAFI H. JANNATY | Caravan Daily
What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice. This statement of Albert Einstein still holds true or rather is more manifest now than the era he was referring.
In the name of liberty and freedom of speech, bigots go to any extent in their diatribe without realizing that such unwarranted harangue directly infringes upon the rights of others including their right to eat, drink and dress the way they find apt and appropriate.
The recent trolling of the daughter of ace music composer, AR Rahman for wearing a hijab or covering her face reflects nothing but a prejudiced mindset. Her status and stature notwithstanding, as any other individual, she enjoys an uninhibited right to wear any attire she wishes and none has any right whatsoever to question her or make any attempt to scorn or sneer her or her parents.
Again, whether she appears on a national or an international stage or walks on a street; her attire is none of anyone’s business. One of the bigots had the audacity to ask ‘how would one know the person behind the veil?’; what business he or anyone else has to see a face or recognize a person as long as the person is not willing. As bigotry knows no bounds, its tentacles flex muscles in all possible directions and in the process blind common sense and intellect. This exactly has happened in the case of Khadija Rahman.
When the wife and another daughter of AR Rahman appeared without wearing a Hijab or Niqab, the talks of parental compulsion or the father forcing that on Khadija seem comical and childish to say the least. Nevertheless, what is more alarming behind those childish thoughts are preconceived notions and bias. Ironically, even the countries and regions which vaunt and boast overt liberalism, liberty and gender equality carry such a distorted and myopic mindset when it comes to hijab or veil as they cannot gulp down their throats the fact that such women are in their rights to wear the attire of their choice.
In their prejudice, they even forget the fact that many of the women who opt to cover their faces or put a cloak over their attire are fully aware of their rights as they grew up in the same liberal environment. Even governmental agencies and courts are not free from such prejudice and bias. Whether one takes the case of Hadiya Shafin Jehan for whom the National Investigative Agency (NIA) tried hard to prove that the marriage of Hadiya to a Muslim man was what is unduly referred as ‘love-jihad’ or ponders upon the Meghalaya high court judgment which devoted unwarrantedly a quarter part to pitch hard for making India a Hindu nation, what lay behind such extreme outlook were the same jaundiced and prejudiced eyes.
In one accentuated form of bigotry, zealots go to the extent of imposing their viewpoint and ideology upon others and those who do not toe to their line are castigated and chastised. The coercion and bullying to glorify nation in the manner and using the epithet and phrases coined by them is a case in point.
During the past couple of years, there have been several instances of one wrangle after the other on the issue. Recently, Afzal Hussain, a school teacher in Bihar, who refused to sing ‘Vande Mataram’ was harassed and beaten up badly. The Minister of Education of the State joined the chorus of the bigots and stated that not singing was an insult to the national song. Afzal Hussain was right in his assertion that the Constitution of India does not oblige one to sing the national song or even the national anthem when one believes that they run contrary to the faith one professes or practices.
In fact, the Supreme Court of India had issued a landmark judgment on this very issue which still holds good even after three decades. In the case of Bijoe Emmanuel Vs. State of Kerala, the issue revolved around refusal by two students to sing the national anthem ‘Jana Gana Mana’ along with other children in the classroom stating that their conscience would not permit them as they sincerely believed that it would amount to idolatry and unfaithfulness to God.
Consequently, the school expelled the two students who happened to be sisters and the decision of expulsion was upheld by the Kerala High Court. However, subsequently, while hearing the appeal filed by their parents, the Supreme Court asserted that the expulsion of the children based on their “conscientiously held religious faith” violated the Constitution of India. Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy had clarified that “No provision of law obliges anyone to sing the national anthem and noted that the right of free speech and expression also includes the right to remain silent.”
What was more significant in the judgment was the assertion by the Judge that “the real test of a true democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country’s Constitution.” Justice Reddy had further added: “Our personal views and reactions are irrelevant. If the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held, it attracts the protection of Article 25 of the Constitution”. Seen in right perspective, the Indian Supreme Court judgment was far superior to what had been referred worldwide as a watershed judgment on freedom of speech by the US Supreme Court.
In 1969, on Tinker v. Des Moines Community School case, the court had upheld the constitutional right of the students to express their dissent against the State within the school premises in a symbolic form. There, the students were criticizing foreign policies of the State or the decision by the government to invade Vietnam, whereas, in the case of the school in Kerala, the two girls had openly refused to sing the national anthem. Although, the issue was related to the nation and not the government; yet, the Indian Supreme Court judge had the wisdom and broadmindedness to uphold the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion not only to comply with the true spirit of the Constitution but also to set a high standard and parameters insofar as the issue of liberty was concerned.
Can we expect such a judgment in the present times? Probably, given the growing intolerance, it looks a bit difficult. What is happening in India now and in fact what started happening after the right-wing party came into power has been the rapid change of the definition of nationalism and insistence that patriotism be practised, viewed, understood and voiced only through a myopic, miscued and distorted lenses of one section of society.
Democracy without secularism is certainly a farce and the latter demands that all citizens are allowed to practice their religion and faith without any fear, hindrance or questioning. In a democracy, it is quite easy to legislate laws which suit the majority; yet, such powers cannot and should not allow the majority to encroach upon the rights of the minorities.
Safi Jannaty is a Saudi Arabia-based Indian writer and Contributing Editor. All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan Daily